Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Monthly Harumph - July

As more national polls come out showing Barack Obama's projected popular vote lead over John McCain by anywhere from one to six percentage points, and as more NY Times opinion columnists make claims such as "The election remains Mr. Obama's to lose," and "Mr. Obama will win," I feel it is necessary to throw cold water on everyone.

1. It's still July. Most people still haven't put much thought into the November election. October is when things can change and polls will perhaps matter more.

2. The popular vote is never how we elect presidents. If it was, we never would have had George W. Bush as president. Therefore the national projected popular vote polls are as meaningless as if we polled people on their favorite celebrity.

3. Swing state polls are fraught with potential error. Barack Obama's projected electoral college lead depends on polls that put him one or two percentage points up for the time being in states such as Indiana, Missouri, Michigan, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico and Montana. I will bet any amount of money that there will be polls in these states between now and the election that will claim that John McCain leads Barack Obama. These too will be meaningless except as indicators saying its a close election.

4. Polls can and are often wrong anyways.

Monday, July 28, 2008

T. Boone Pickens Converting to Natural Gas? It's a Start

T. Boone Pickens, annointed demigod of Oklahoma State University, is apparently running for the position of King of America and has put out his first campaign ad which is running nationally on various news channels and maybe even on network TV (I don't know, I don't usually watch network TV). He's touting what he calls the Pickens Plan, which is a bold-yet-logical energy plan:

Step 1: Replace natural gas power plants with wind farms
Step 2: Use excess natural gas as fuel for new generation of cars that run on compressed natural gas

This plan to get oil out of our economy is one of the best middle-ground proposals I've heard, and people are actually talking about it. Energy policy was the primary focus discussed among the eight of us who attended the Barack Obama platform meeting I went to here in Norman a week ago. We talked about ethanol from corn, switchgrass and sugar cane, and we mostly came to the conclusion that ethanol was not going to save us from petroleum. So we democrats are completely open to alternative energy sources that will be clean(ish) and renewable.

The genius of T. Boone's plan is that it gives no lip service to Democrats at all. T. Boone frames his plan exclusively as a way to avoid paying those damned Saudis billions of dollars for their oil, an issue near and dear to the Republican heart. This is the reason why drop-in-the-bucket fixes like Arctic National Wildlife Refuge drilling and outer continental shelf exploration gain traction with Republicans. But in giving what is essentially a Democrat-style energy policy change a Republican-style rationale, he can shape the debate much more effectively and get both sides talking about it.

As a Democrat, I love wind farms. It doesn't get cheaper, cleaner and more renewable than wind
power, but as an engineer I also recognize its limitations. It doesn't produce nearly the number of megawatts we would need to replace all our power plants in this country. And of course you can't run a car on wind power. Well, not well anyway. So that's where the Republican-style natural gas part comes in. Natural gas is slightly cleaner than gasoline, but it is still a fossil fuel. That means the same exploration, drilling and refining processes, the same creation of greenhouse carbon dioxide and the same impermanence as oil. Plus natural gas deposits are found only where oil deposits are found; the U.S. only has about 3% of the worlds reserves, and the Middle East and Caspian Sea region combined have something like 75%. If natural gas were to become as desirable as oil, we'd be running into the same problems with dictatorships and cartels that we have now with oil.

What has got to happen in this country is nuclear power. While it is not renewable, the energy density of uranium fission is astronomically high, several millions of orders of magnitude larger than even the most efficient fossil fuels. And it does not release any carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. But T. Boone Pickens wouldn't be able to see any economic benefit; while Texas and Oklahoma are the Kuwaits of American oil, natural gas and wind energy production, Wyoming is the Saudi Arabia of American uranium. Once we get the American grid up and running on nuclear power, then we can use any of a number of resources to fuel our cars. Hydrogen fuel cells? Sure. Switchgrass ethanol? Whatever.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Why is No One Challenging This Notion That the Surge is a Success?

So the new thing in the McCain campaign is to retort Barack Obama's claims of superior judgment about the disaster of starting the Iraq War with claims of superior judgment about the success story the "surge" turned out to be. And this story of campaign talking points gets passed around in the surficially non-partisan election-year coverage from the media without any analysis. What gets lost in this traditional election year back-and-forth is that the fiction about the surge's success remains unchallenged.

It's like everyone has forgotten why we had this surge of troops in the first place. We were tired of getting our asses kicked, so congress set up the bipartisan Baker-Hamilton Iraq Study Group to come up with some things we could do to stop the hurtin'. When their report came out, Bush ignored most of the recommendations and keyed in on a footnote developed by some of the more hawkish members which suggested that the U.S. increase the number of soldiers in Baghdad by lengthening tours and whatnot. Strategy was developed to give purpose to these extra brigades, and the White House came up with the overarching goals, including reducing the violence enough to allow the Iraqis to come up with and enforce their own laws, training Iraqi security and law enforcement more quickly, and in general guiding Iraqis towards stable democracy. Good points certainly, but it required Iraqi leaders to take up the initiative. This is why the strategy was flawed.

The surge started in January of 2007 and would last through this month, July 2008. The new Democrat-controlled Congress gritted its teeth and passed many non-binding resolutions in full awareness of their lack of constitutional oversight into the executive branch's war powers. But they did manage to pass what would turn out to be completely irrelevant benchmark legislation that required the military to evaluate itself. They did evaluate themselves, dishonestly but still poorly, and the surge bumbled along. After the reporting frenzy of September 2007, the media started not caring about Iraq anymore, choosing instead to start Election 2008 coverage.

It wasn't until about November 2007 that violent attacks finally started to decline, which mostly went unnoticed at first. Eventually the media caught on to the fact that merely dozens of Americans instead of hundreds of Americans were being killed every month and reported it unequivocably as a success story, even though about a thousand Iraqi civilians still die every month from sectarian gunfire and suicide bombers. But since the whole stated purpose of the Surge was dependant on the Iraqis developing a functioning civil society, can we really call it a success? Have the Iraqis properly dealt with their problem of training militia members who turn around and become loyal to sectarian leaders like Muqtada al-Sadr? Are the national police loyal to the state? Are the Iraq Security Forces able to take our place yet? Do the people recognize the Iraqi parliament as the creator of laws? Are there oil-revenue sharing laws yet (I actually don't know about this one)? If these benchmarks of the surge aren't met, how can we call the surge a success? Someone needs to call John McCain's bluff.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Paul Krugman Jinxes It!

You should never talk about a no-hitter while it's happening. You should never plan your victory parade before your team's won the Super Bowl. You should never declare a state won for a particular candidate before the polls close. And you should never declare an election over before August. But Paul Krugman has.

If you ask me, there isn’t much suspense in this year’s election: barring
some extraordinary mistakes, Mr. Obama will win.

This is an attitude felt by blue-state-dwellers like Mr. Krugman about the upcoming election, as I noticed on my recent train trip to New York. But there are large swaths of the country that don't necessarily feel that way, and the way-too-important swing states of Ohio, Florida and Missouri are, as usual, quite swingy still. Yes, it's looking good for Obama. But it's July.